2020’s These Violent Delights is the first volume in Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights series.
Proud heir to leadership of the Scarlet Gang, Juliette Cai is determined to lead her father’s gangsters to total domination of Jazz-era Shanghai. There are but two small impediments to this scheme: firstly, that the Russian-run White Flowers do not care to admit defeat in the on-going blood feud between the gangs and secondly, that the current occupation of Shanghai by arrogant foreign powers appears to have tilted the balance in favour of the White Flowers.
There is also the almost inconsequential matter that White Flower heir Roma Montagov used to be Juliette’s lover. It’s an age-old story: two star-crossed teens meet and then part amid a flurry of bloody mutual assassination attempts facilitated by information clearly gleaned from each other. Their affair is the past. The only question now is who will kill whom.
A scattering of dead gangsters from both gangs, dumped on the waterfront, could be simply another bloody chapter in the gang war. It isn’t. Each of the dead men killed themself.
Whatever the madness is, it is not over. Soon after the first pile of corpses is discovered, there is a second outbreak. This time the victim is a single man, a Scarlet Gang member in mismatched shoes. What let him to claw open his own throat is unclear.
Determined to discover the cause, Roma takes the extraordinary step of visiting a Scarlet Gang club to confer with Juliette. As Roma gambled she might, Juliette declines to murder Roma on the spot. Nevertheless, the visit is fruitless, beyond stirring up unpleasant memories. Juliette has no idea what is going on.
Had the deaths ended there, the gangs could have gone back to chasing profits while killing each other. The deaths do not end. More people fall victim to the madness, clawing open their own throats in fear and pain. If a cure cannot be found, the city may be depopulated.
The gangs are criminals, yes, but another way to view them is as unsanctioned governments. Even were the victims not disproportionately gangsters — one Roma’s sister — both the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers are motivated to save the city. After all, without people, no economy. Gangs or at least gang leaders must act together.
Of course, secret cooperation can be misinterpreted. Very risky in a city where disloyalty is rewarded with death.
Does the play Romeo and Juliet exist in this universe? Montague is used as a cover name at one point, but the play itself is never referenced in the body of the text, despite the clear parallels between the leads of Shakespeare’s play and the protagonists of this novel1. One can reasonably argue that just as most zombie films are set in universes without zombie films, this Romeo and Juliet homage is set in a world where the Bard never wrote that particular play.
These Violent Delightshas a lot in common with classic Hong Kong gangster films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and The Mission2.
That said, Shanghai isn’t Hong Kong. The city is as much a character in the novel as either protagonist or the supporting cast. While spared warlord clashes, the city contains the International Settlement, which is divided between rival nations rather than a single colonial power. It is still effectively beyond Chinese law. Additionally, the Paris of the East is one of the battlegrounds between the Kuomintang and the Communists. While the protagonists cannot know what the future will bring, the Sino-Japanese War is not so far off. Fun times all round.
These Violent Delightsis also a pandemic horror novel, which given lead times for publishing must simply be a delightful coincidence. I regret to report that the people of Gong’s Shanghai, while victim to any number of human flaws, still manage to react to the contagion sweeping their community a lot more sensibly than many people have done during our current pandemic.
These Violent Delightsis an entertainingly bloody romp through an alternate Shanghai. It’s engagingly written and the characters are appealing, Juliette in particular. I did want to know that things will end well for her. Unfortunately the book ends on a cliff-hanger. I and other fans will have to cultivate patience and wait for further volumes to appear.
1: To be honest, I am not hoping that Roma and Juliette reconcile at the end of the series. Juliette has the potential to be a remarkable gang leader and it would be shame if her professional aspirations got derailed just because she has a soft spot for a guy she really needs to whack to take control of the city.
2: I could also mention Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga. Although … These Violent Delights isn’t a secondary world fantasy. Nor is it as replete with magic as is the Green Bone Saga.